The video is shocking and horrifying. Whatever the student did to earn the attention of a police officer, whatever disdain she showed – and even if, as some alleged, she punched the officer – the handling of the matter by forcefully grabbing the student, tossing her out of the chair and dragging her across the classroom was out of bounds. It was dangerous and it opens up a whole new discussion to the discourse on police-community interactions.
Give Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott some credit – while his press conference meandered between defending the officer and disgust, he did the right thing, he did it quickly and he did it publicly.
According to published reports, Sheriff Lott said that the teacher and administrator present during the incident said they appreciated Deputy Ben Fields’ quick response. The student was allegedly disturbing the class, talking on her cell phone and refusing to cooperate with the teacher.
However, Sheriff Lott said, “Even though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy, I’m looking at what our deputy did.”
“He was wrong in his actions and it was not what I expect of my deputies,” Lott said. “Deputy Fields did not follow proper training or procedures when he threw the student across the room. It continues to upset me that he picked the student up and threw her.”
People will obviously continue to debate the racial aspect of this – the officer was white, the student was a black female. Would the deputy have thrown a white student like that? Is there a class component – would the deputy have acted this way at an affluent school?
The reason these racial questions keep popping is that these incidents continue to draw them out.
But what is also interesting is that the student apparently is facing charges “for disrupting the class, a commotion that prevented other students from learning and the teacher from performing his job.”
“She is responsible for initiating this action,” Sheriff Lott said. “Some responsibility falls on her. The action of our deputy, we take responsibility for that. What she did doesn’t justify what our deputy did. But she needs to be held responsible for what she did.”
Sheriff Lott said that “he fired Fields in person and spoke to him about the incident.”
Mr. Fields reportedly expressed remorse.
“He’s sorry that this whole thing occurred, it was not his intention,” Sheriff Lott said. “He tried to do his job and that’s what he feels like he did. It happened very quickly and his actions were something that if he probably had to do over again he’d do it differently.”
Perhaps so, but his conduct was so over-the-top and egregious, that it is hard to defend.
Under South Carolina law, it is a misdemeanor offense to “willfully or unnecessarily … interfere with or to disturb in any way” students and teachers in school, or “to act in an obnoxious manner” in a school.
According to the Washington Post article, “Those charged with disturbing schools face a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine or 90 days in a county jail. Family courts handle such cases if the accused is a minor. Disturbing schools is the third-most common charge in cases referred to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, just behind assault and battery and shoplifting, according to 2014 department data.”
Is this how we want to try to discipline our students to behave in school? Through arrest?
The New York Times yesterday reported on a backdrop to this story. They report that “national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses.” In Davis we have often talked about the achievement gap, but we also have a suspension gap which has led the district to revise a lot of their rules for suspensions (see December 2014 article and August 2015 article).
The NY Times reports that this issue was under scrutiny in Richland County long before the incident occurred. Last year, the district formed a task force in order to examine its practices.
The racial divide in the Richland School District led to the formation of the Black Parents Association and a bitter campaign to control the school board.
The Times reports, “In Richland Two, where 59 percent of students are black and 26 percent are white, 77 percent of those suspended at least once in 2011-12 were black, according to figures compiled by the Justice Department, though details to allow a comparison of the offenses were not readily available. And South Carolina relies much more on suspension than the nation as a whole; 24 percent of public school students in the state were suspended at least once that year, compared with 13 percent nationwide.”
The Times adds, “Black parents have complained that school discipline is arbitrary and disproportionately affects black students, said Stephen Gilchrist, a founder of Richland Two Black Parents Association. The group was formed in early 2014 to address such concerns and to increase black representation among the school district’s leadership.”
While this incident figures to draw focus once again on police misconduct, we should be looking more closely at the discipline gap and how better to handle disobedient students other than to try to criminalize that behavior.
—David M. Greenwald reporting